Since its rushed closure in November 2016 and subsequent reopening early this year, Makerere University has been the main focus of several local curious and inquisitive pundits.

Some prominent scholars and researchers such as Prof Mahmood Mamdam, ProfSemakula Kiwanuka, Prof Abdul Kasozi and Prof Kerali Anthony have also described the predicament faced by Makerere as a ‘crisis’ or ‘complex problem’ that require ‘solutions’.

The primary aim of this article, however, is not to offer specific solutions to various problems faced by Makerere, but rather to introduce to the local pundits, researchers and readers a relatively new unique approach that can be used to ‘solve’ insuperable organisational and national problems.

It is also vitally important to remember and recognise that in the real world, there are two categories of problems. That is, the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ problems. Hard problems are those that can be formulated precisely and a commensurate solution provided.

In contrast, soft problems are those that cannot be formulated precisely and have no specific solutions. Soft problems can also be described as wicked, intractable, complex and insurmountable problems. Examples of soft problems include climate change, poverty, traffic jam and the decline of standard of university education.

But how do wrestle these seemingly wicked problems faced by nations and organisations across the globe?
One way of tackling such problems is by applying the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). SSM was developed by two engineers and technologists (Peter Checkland and Brian Wilson) in the 1970s at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom to ‘solve problems’ concerned with efficiency and effectiveness.

SSM is based on human activity systems and models. Although developed by engineers, SSM can be used in various fields and in the management of change.

The main objective of SSM is not to solve problems, but to improve on what is commonly viewed as a problematic situation. This is normally achieved through undertaking purposeful human activities and taking sensible actions.
Under SSM, words such as ‘solutions’ and ‘problems’ are often avoided. Instead, analysts and investigators use concepts such as ‘problematical situations’, ‘wicked problems’, ‘complex problems’, ‘intractable problems’ and ‘improve a problematic situation’.

SSM is gaining popularity among researchers and investigators because it is more flexible than the conventional approaches used in wrestling complex problems.
A further key element of SSM is the application of a Rich Picture. A Rich Picture is defined as ‘the expression of a problem situation compiled by an investigator, often by examining elements of structure, elements of process and the situation climate’.

Rich Pictures are used in analysing problematic situations or issues of common concern. Once fully drawn, Rich Pictures are presented for discussion and exchange of ideas among various stakeholders.

Also as widely acknowledged ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. SSM enables the investigator to embark on a process of learning about the real world situation being investigated, while simultaneously seeking to improve it.
Given the wickedness of some of Makerere’s problems, it is important that SSM is applied in gaining a deeper understanding of institutional failings and deficiencies as well as in finding a better way of dealing with intricate situations such as the decline in standard of university education.

Besides, understanding and recognising that not all problems can be precisely formulated and definite solutions provided is indisputably critical in producing students that are creative and imaginative as well as in making university education more relevant, meaningful and balanced.

Dr Kiggundu is a researcher and senior lecturer at Makerere University.